by Pat Worden
I’m a third-generation Akron rubber worker.
I almost feel like a poser for claiming that, but it’s technically true. I spent one hot, achy summer in my very early 20s working the press line at Karman Rubber in Copley, churning out butterfly valves for washing machines and inflation valves for basketballs. Then I spent the rest of my professional life getting as far away from physical labor as I could.
But my dad and granddad before me — now those were some rubber workers. Both of them spent decades in the employ of BF Goodrich, with my father retiring from the company and my grandfather passing away a few years short of that milestone. Between them they logged something like 75 years on the job.
I really have no idea what my grandfather did for the company, other than some vague family stories about a few industrial patents Goodrich filed based on his ideas. Those family stories were invariably tied into others about what a prodigy granddad was — he taught himself Greek and Latin from books and fashioned his own TV remote control back in the 1950s. He also died relatively young, alcoholic and embittered. He was known to complain that all he got from Goodrich for those patents was a single gold watch.
I recall my dad’s professional arc much better. He started at the bottom, which in rubber means the dirtiest. Handling raw rubber and barrels of carbon powder and sulfur, these workers came home so dirty their wives would hose them off in the front yard. My dad welcomed his promotion onto a cleaner line, where he manufactured conveyor belts. I asked him once if he didn’t want to go for that most iconic job, tire-builder, but he just snorted and shook his head, as if the idea was absurd. Tire builders were the top of the heap, he said. He couldn’t possibly land a job up there.
His career took him to Goodrich’s chemical plant in South Akron, the job he retired from. This one was less physical, more mental, judging from the stacks of technical manuals I’d see him reading during his down time. When I asked him about them, all he’d say was that he needed to learn how to mix the chemicals just right. Years later, he told me how sometimes things would go wrong in that respect, and sometimes they’d have a spill, and sometimes the spills would overflow into the little stream that ran by the plant. He described in detail too graphic for my liking how the fish would try to escape the caustic flow, jumping up onto the banks to die. This led me to start noticing the many chemical plants in the Akron area, and how they’re almost always built right next to little streams just like the one my dad described.
But that’s really all he said about his job. For years and years, for decades, he just packed up his lunchbox, went to work, and did what he needed to do. Goodrich paid the bills and subsidized braces, ER trips and antibiotics. My dad counted his days down to retirement. The job granted him a small pension, but most of his savings were tied up in a 401k. The dot-com bust of ‘00 hit him at just the wrong time, delaying his retirement by a full two years.
As it turned out, he’s one of those guys who can’t not work. He almost immediately went out and took a post-retirement job at a car dealership, running their wash bay and shuttling cars around. He’s a car guy, so this is an absolute fit and he loves it. By now he’s been behind the wheel of about every make and model on the road today, and he’s happy to share his informed opinion about them all.
And he didn’t stop there. Last year he took on his second post-Goodrich gig, as a fill-in school crossing guard. The first winter he griped a lot about early mornings and rough weather, but also spoke fondly of the kids he chatted with each day. He’s now in his second year with those kids, and he just celebrated his 80th birthday.
The last time I tried to discuss with him the history of Akron rubber, and his place in it, was many years ago, when Akron was starting to seriously wax nostalgic for its gone-for-good industry. I told him that people wanted to hear the rubber workers’ stories, and that they needed to be recorded before they were lost. I told him I’d write his if he’d let me. He laughed. He said he was the wrong guy to ask. He said he couldn’t think of a single story from all those years that anyone would be interested in hearing.
Pat Worden is a lifelong Akron resident. He’s on the hunt for the city’s lost lore.
Photo: Worden family